NBA greats have a tendency to ruin other player’s championship aspirations.
The dominance of Bill Russell and the ‘60s Celtics held Wilt the Stilt to two titles and Jerry West to one. Despite playing with Moses Malone and Charles Barkley, Dr. J only managed to steal one title from the Magic/Bird stranglehold in the ‘80s. Jordan prevented Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp from ever tasting Finals glory.
LeBron’s dominance over the past decade sucked the very life out of the Eastern Conference.
While the East has been largely overshadowed by the West for the better part of the century, the Eastern Conference talent has steadily declined as LeBron has ascended to his throne. The competition dwindled from the early 2000s with the new age Bad Boy Pistons and Boston’s Big 3 to niche overachievers like the 60-win Atlanta Hawks or post-season pretenders like the Toronto Raptors of the last three years.
To put this in perspective, the greatest Eastern threat to LeBron’s eight-year Finals streak were the aging Big 3 and an upstart Indiana Pacers team during his Miami tenure, along with the young 2018 Celtics who pushed LeBron’s Cavs to the brink without Kyrie Irving. During the streak, LeBron’s teams were only pushed to six or seven game series in the Eastern Conference playoffs eight times in eight years.
In that same time period, the Western Conference Finals representatives (Dirk’s Mavericks, the Kevin Durant-led Thunder, the Dynastic Spurs and the historically dominant Warriors) not only to battle through each other but the Lob City Clippers, the last few years of Kobe in his prime and the tantalizing CP3/James Harden Rockets.
But rejoice, the King is gone and his reign of terror is over. LeBron’s western exodus has triggered an all-out Eastern Conference arms race that even has the impenetrable Warriors taking notice.
The Dark Horses
It’s been a long time coming for the Nets. Six years of shuffling through the bargain bin and enduring a failed Jason Kidd coup, the Nets have finally dredged up enough draft capital and cap space for a promising young core. Despite an up and down 2019, the Nets are firmly entrenched in the playoff race.
The future outlook for this team will largely be determined by what happens this summer. Five Nets will enter free agency, including Brooklyn’s first All-Star since 2013, D’Angelo Russell. However, even if they are outbid for Russell, they have more than enough cap space to make noise in the offseason.
Should they renounce the rights of restricted free agents Russell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, along with unrestricted free agents Demarre Carroll, Jared Dudley and Ed Davis, Brooklyn could have up to $53.8 million to spend, enough to free up at least one max contract slot.
Look for Brooklyn to be star shopping this summer to add to this promising core.
The Pacers have provided both the league’s most tragic and feel good story of the year. When Victor Oladipo ruptured his quad, it seemed like the dark horse contender was doomed for mediocrity. Yet since the injury, the Pacers are still going strong, clinching a playoff spot and holding steady as the fifth seed.
Without a bona fide star, the Pacers won’t compete for an Eastern Conference title this year, but they can easily spoil the party for one or two of the Eastern elites.
Looking forward, the future is even brighter. While Indiana has never been much of a free agency destination, the Pacers will have money to spend this offseason. If they decide to renounce the rights of disappointing 2018 additions Tyreke Evans and Kyle O’ Quinn they can clear over $15 million off the books. If they decide to upgrade their starting lineup and renounce Darren Collision and Thad Young they can clear over $40 million, enough to go hunting for a star partner for Oladipo.
The Big 4
Let me preface this by saying this squad is easily one of the most disappointing teams in Boston’s illustrious history. Their performance makes you second guess the notion that you can’t have too many guys.
Reintroducing Irving and Gordon Hayward to the rotation has been an unmitigated disaster. Hayward looks like a tentative shell of himself, Irving continues to stir up locker room discord as he inches out the door. Worse yet, their young studs who pushed LeBron to seven games have regressed, actually playing better without Kyrie.
Their future outlook could be even bleaker. Once considered the front-runner in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes with their war chest of assets, Boston probably won’t even keep their in-house superstar this summer.
So why are they even on this list?
Boston may be the most inconsistent team in the league, but in short stretches they can offer glimpses of their potential. In brief stretches Hayward returns to his All-Star explosiveness.
Every once in a while Kyrie puts his ego aside or Tatum reminds everyone he’s the best young player in the association.
Should Brad Stevens be able to spark a little magic, the Celtics can still power their way to the Finals.
The Sixers are another team that has the talent to win it all and the volatility to implode their way out of the first round.
Long term, I’m not sure this core is sustainable. Jimmy Butler won’t be satisfied with being a 3rd or 4th option for long, while Philly won’t be too thrilled about dishing out max money to a man who’s forced his way out of two teams in as many years.
Tobias Harris is a better fit, but I’m not sure a guy with a limited two-way ceiling and no All-Stars on his resume is deserving of max money either — someone will pay Harris this summer, doesn’t mean Philly should. Simmons aversion to shooting is getting more and more frightening.
All of those are tomorrow’s issues. Today, Philly has the best starting five outside of Golden State’s historic unit.
The Raptors are weird. With their arsenal of versatile players they shift how they play from one game to the next. Worst case, they lack an identity, best case, their chameleon nature allows them to play with anyone in the league. Seeing as they have the 2nd best record in the NBA, even with Kawhi Leonard missing 21 total games, I’m leaning towards the latter.
While Toronto might have the deepest roster in the NBA, they also have the tightest window. The Raps may already be feeling out the post-Kawhi landscape, with Kawhi’s perceived flirtation with the L.A. Clippers. However, similar to Boston, Toronto have enough young assets centered around Pascal Siakim to either build around or deal into the AD sweepstakes.
Leonard’s departure would definitely sting considering they sacrificed their all-time leading scorer to bring him up north, but they can avoid a full-blown tear down should he go out West.
Yet like Philly, Toronto sacrificed their depth for win-now talent. Marc Gasol won’t be in the Raptors long-term plans — though he’ll be sure to opt in to his massive $25 million player option for 2019-20. The trade for the 34-year-old center was for one reason and one reason only: a championship run.
The Bucks are composed of the best parts of the other Eastern conference contenders without most of the downside. They have a starting five with just as much punch as the 76ers without having to worry about sharing touches between their stars. They have as much depth as the Celtics without having rotation players filling ill-suited roles. Most importantly, their in-house superstar isn’t walking out that door next summer.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is already starting to carve out his role as the next face of the league. With a strong run through the East this spring, Giannis can become the new king of the East.
Should they survive the Eastern gauntlet, this team is perfectly constructed to bring down the Warriors. They have the length and flexibility to defend all five positions, with the 3-point shooting to stretch out a suddenly below average Golden State defense.
That being said, the recent injury bug is nothing sneeze at. Donte DiVincenzo has already been ruled out for the rest of the season with bursitis, Pau Gasol and Niko Mirotic both could be out for another two weeks, while Malcolm Brogdon may be out until the 2nd round as he recovers from a torn plantar fascia.
With a three game cushion over the Raptors, the Bucks can afford digging into their rotation for the remainder of the regular season. The seldom used rookie DiVincenzo and the washed vet Gasol likely would be non-factors in the playoff rotation anyways, while Mirotic and Brogdon should return in time for the bulk of their playoff run.
This offseason is key for Milwaukee. Starters Brook Lopez, Brogdon and Khris Middleton are all entering free agency. With breakout seasons likely resulting in big paydays for Brogdon and Middleton, Milwaukee may not be able to keep the whole band together.
Yet if the Bucks can keep two of the three, along with the newly resigned Eric Bledsoe and Giannis, the Bucks can be the Eastern team of the present and future.